updates for 02.12.2012
On Thursday afternoon, I went back to my classroom to get my stuff, and it was honestly the hardest thing I've ever done. I knew it would be a bad idea to go in the morning, because I would either mess up the day (UPK time) for their new teacher, or I would create a disruption before nap time and the kids would never go to sleep. I decided to go at the end of nap time, so that there wouldn't be a problem if the kids got upset. Thankfully my boyfriend came with me, because otherwise I probably would have had a complete breakdown. When we got there, the kids were getting up and putting their stuff away to get ready for supper. At first, a bunch of the kids were really excited to see me. They ran up to me, were giving me hugs and kisses. But when the first one started crying because she was going to miss me, I broke down. It definitely didn't help that I had two who wouldn't acknowledge me. I know they must feel that I have abandoned them, and I wish I could explain that I want nothing more than to be with them until they go to Kindergarten in September. I wish I knew what had happened even, so that I could understand why I am not with them, but I don't have that luxury. I'm not sure what is going to happen now. I'm going through the placement process again with TFA. I'm also looking at other opportunities, both in education and outside of it. I'm hoping to get placed in a classroom soon, because I really think that's where I should be right now. But I can't lie, if the opportunity to join a non-profit with a focus in education came along, I don't know that I would say no. I just feel so confused right now, I'm in something of a whirlwind. I find myself not telling people about what's happened because I can't explain it or give more details, and because I don't know what is going to happen now. I just say that my kids are great, and teaching is great. What else can I do?
I appear to have been working in a paper factory this week. I amassed no fewer than four paper cuts in extremely inconvenient places on both hands - on my finger joints, right in the middle of the fleshy part of my hand, both thumbs, on my cuticles, etc. These aren't ordinary slivers, either; these are gaping slits from manila envelopes and file folders. Enormous gashes from very thick paper. It is not unusual for me to end the week with ink-covered hands or sore feet from the insane heels I insist on wearing, but this many paper cuts in a week is different. I was initially at a loss to explain the Week of the Paper Cut. But I figured out, it's because of a rapid and dramatic increase in special education referrals and 504 plans. If this sounds wholly unrelated, allow me to explain: SPED or 504 paperwork, because of confidentiality issues, is kept locked up in a file drawer at all times. When someone adds a new student to the caseload, I put together a file on them with all manner of papers and file folders within hanging folders. The more files I have to put together, the more exposure to file folder, and the more likely I am to sustain a slash in the process of the file assembly. For example, let's say that I injure myself on approximately 25% of files. If I make two new files, there is a very slim chance of unplanned skin incisions; If I make eight files, it is almost certain that I will slice my skin with the razor edge of the offending folder. What do my file folder mangled fingers have to do with anything? My IEP caseload increased from four students last year to eight students in August, then nine in September. It is likely that it will hit eleven before April break. The 504 caseload jumped from three in January of 2011 to twelve at this point. SpEd referrals in high school are fairly rare. Waiting until a child is 15 or 17 to refer for special services is the opposite of early intervention. It's probably not as uncommon to create 504 plans in high school, but an increase of 400% seems a bit high. As I've mentioned before, there is an inherent tension in teaching special needs students in a college prep high school. Of course, not all students who have IEPs or 504s are intellectually disabled and unable to participate fully in the college prep curriculum, but a good number are. Also, a number of "regular ed" students aren't performing so well in the rigorous classes because they arrived at our school far behind grade level. A student who came in reading on the 4th grade level probably isn't going to catch up to grade level by the time they graduate. We, as a school, don't seem to know what to do for those students, the ones who don't have disabilities but aren't on grade level. We seem to have only two options: create lower-level classes for students who are behind and compromise on rigor or declare that they have a disability and are not responsible for the same requirements as their non-disabled peers. It seems that we have chosen the second option. The school assumes that students who aren't succeeding after they've been put through the requisite set of interventions must, then, have a disability. This is a false assumption. Some students are quite simply just very far behind but have no disabilities. They will likely fail to meet the graduation standards. Here's the issue: in order for tier I instruction to be valid, 80% of the students should be mastering the concepts without intervention. This is not the case. The texts are not at a readable level for 80% of the class, particularly freshman year. For that reason alone, we can't really say that all intervention has failed because the most basic intervention - teaching students using texts at their instruction levels - hasn't been implemented. So we have, instead, a glut of referrals. And I have many, many paper cuts.
There’s a reason people write country songs about small town life (if you, shockingly, have more than one non-country radio station in your area and aren't up on your twang, the title of this post is from one such song). They’re always these drawly, proud-to-be-an-American, simple-things-are-worth-having songs, and when you live in a city you think, “OK, this is catchy, but are we really going to idealize archetypes that, quaint as they are, may not even exist anymore?” But when you live in a small town, it’s a little different. Granted, the modern day small town is less front porches and howdy-neighbors than Mr. Rogers would make it out to be. But even in a glorified truck stop like Gallup, replete with fast food and motels, there’s simple pleasure to be had, made all the more joyous when seen with 12-year-old eyes. On Thursday night, this weekend’s basketball tournament started with our girls’ game. We had practice for the boys that afternoon, and 3 of my favorite boys asked if they could stay with me and the other coach to come see the girls’ game. Side note: even though we’re in the same building and going all the same places, the boys are hilariously specific about which one of us they are officially staying with; of course, since my awesome co-coach has been at the school since it began and known all the kids since they were munchkins, it always melts my heart a little when they declare they’re staying with me. I know I’m still an outsider in all ways that count (around here if you’ve been here less than 10 years you’re an outsider) but the kids are effortlessly accepting. So anyway, the boys are staying with us. We did absolutely nothing to write home about: goofed around in practice, shot around for a bit, stopped at a truck stop for a snack on the way to the girls’ game. We got some McDonald’s because they needed dinner on the way to the high school girls’ game, where their parents were. They convinced me to come to the high school game, and I convinced my co-coach to come too, so we watched the varsity girls crush a team from Albuquerque. And yet somehow, having a 9-, 11-, and 12-year-old around makes everything fresh and exciting. It was the most adorably fun night. The boys treated the truck stop and dinner like the most wonderful treats. They giggled and talked in funny voices to make each other laugh, danced and sang ridiculously to the radio, and were stunned when, gasp, Ms. EMinNM knows the words to this song too! Even riding in my car was exciting: it’s not as bumpy as my mom’s! There’s a teaching book in the backseat I can read in an accent! I learned more about Lawrence in that one evening than I have in the 2 months of basketball till now: he has cows at his house, he ropes calves in rodeos, he has 4 brothers and sisters (all of whom have oddly similar names), a sad song that came on the radio always reminds him of his grandma. Even at the high school game, amid their families and the middle school boys (who are, like, so cool), they would circulate, coming to sit with us for a few minutes every so often as if to make sure they got some time with everyone. I’m not doing a very good job of explaining why this was a significant evening, and I think that’s the point. The quaintness of small towns, the way you can appreciate something so simple and unimportant as a trip to McDonald’s with your favorite kids, is actually just like the drawly country songs. Maybe it’s the belongingness of the whole thing—everywhere we went, we saw people we knew: parents at the truck stop, coaches and players at the tournament, cousins and sisters at the high school game. And even though it’s not really my town, because of the kids I get to belong a little too. And that's really what the songs are about, why they resonate even with city-dwellers at least a little, because in the end it's about belonging in the place that you are. The kids use the word “all” to mean “really,” as in, “He was all happy.” When we drove the last boy home, Lawrence says, almost to himself, “Man, this night is all fun.” Yup. I thought so, too.
There have been a few situations in the last few weeks when some of my students have been bullying another student....one student for being "from Africa" and one student for being "so gay." The counselor, the other teachers, and I have hopefully dealt with these situations in a way that will stop these particular students from being bullied....but we'll see if that actually works. However, when thinking about bullying, it occurs to me that I could probably currently be classified as a victim of bullying. On a daily basis, students shout mean things at me. I go out of my way to buy supplies, which are then stolen with malicious intent. I keep little stacks of paper to use as exit tickets--these are sometime purposely knocked all over the floor. Sometimes, when I turn around, students throw pencils or balls of paper at the back of my head. Students mock me and when I am upset about something, students laugh at me. When people spend time planning ways of tormenting someone else, this is bulling. I am luckier than those of my students who might be bullying victims in that I do have some ways of defending myself from this bullying and that I am starting out with a better-developed sense of self-confidence, but it is still frustrating to realize that a decade after I myself finished 7th grade, I am being bullied by 7th graders.
Until this year, I had never really failed at anything. I was always pretty good at most of the stuff that I did and the few things I wasn't good at (all sports, for example) I decided weren't for me and I moved on to other more interesting things. In school and in all of the other extra things I chose to pursue, I always worked moderately hard, and had very good results. In contrast, with teaching, I work EXTREMELY hard, and have very poor results. Usually I can't get my class to shut-up long enough to hear a simple direction for how to do an activity, let alone actually get them to learn something from the activity. In some of my evaluations by my supervisor in my certification program, I have been getting zeros (on a scale of 0-4) in some categories.....notably, classroom culture. Never before have I ever been so unsuccessful at anything, particular something that I am working VERY hard on. This is an interesting experience, albeit extremely frustrating that I am not doing a better job of teaching my students. In a sad twist of irony, this actually helps me understand some of my students a bit better. I don't know what it feels like to fail continuously all day every day every year (some of my students do), but having this experience of failure at least gives me some insight into what my students in that situation might be thinking or feeling....
As I student, I never misbehaved. I was in an environment where everyone else was mostly doing what they should be doing, so I guess I just got in the habit of doing what my teachers asked me to do. Since this kept working out very well for me, it never even occurred to me that I could or should disrupt class, be mean to the teacher or other students, throw things, etc. I really don't understand misbehavior. Sure, on an intellectual level I am willing to accept that a student might misbehave because they don't understand the content and therefore are either bored and trying to entertain themselves or they are trying to cover the fact that they are lost. Or, if a lesson is going too slowly and a student gets bored, or if a student is upset about a family issues or a social issue, or an issue in another class, or any number of other things which could lead a student to not be doing what (s)he should be doing. However, what mystifies me is the step that connects one of those causes with the actual decision to talk over another student who is asking a question, or throw a ball of paper at the back of the teacher's head, or take a piece of paper, tear it up into little bits and throw it all in the air, etc. What goes on in the head of a student who is confused and then thinks to himself: "Ok, I am confused. Therefore, I will toss a ball of paper at the teacher." I really have no idea how that thought happens. There is an episode of The West Wing in which CJ, the press secretary, admits to someone that she doesn't remember exactly what had happened on the night of a shooting that she was present for, and that all of the information she had been sharing with the press was based only on what other people had remembered. I feel a similar way with regard to my understanding of discipline issues. I can recite an explanation of why people might misbehave and some ways to prevent those things, but this is all based on other people's understanding of this topic. I really don't understand why people misbehave, I am just basing my understanding and my (attempted) solutions on what other people have tried to explain to me. I do not understand what is going on in the head of someone who is misbehaving, and this makes it hard for me to prevent that from happening or stopping it once it had started. I wonder if there is a special class on classroom management that could be taught to people who were the "good kid" in school that would help us actually understand misbehavior. I would take that class.
At the high school my students will attend in two-years if (by an act of god) they pass 7th and 8th grade, there are currently three seniors who have just earned full ride scholarships to Ivy League schools for being extremely high-achieving first-generation college students (one of these students has passed 18 AP classes, for example). Two of these students actually attended the middle school where I teach, and one has a brother who is currently at the school. Thinking these would be ideal role-models for my kids, I invited these seniors to come in and speak to my students to tell them about the college search process, academics in high school, and the decisions that they had been making on a daily basis back in middle school that helped set them on the path they are on (for example: doing homework, not cursing out the teacher, etc.). My cluster of teachers brought all of our (~100) students into a room so everyone could get to hear from the visitors. I tried, unsuccessfully, for a few seconds to get the kids to quiet down so that I could introduce the guests. One of the other teachers in my cluster then said something along the lines of "stop talking now" and everyone instantly stopped talking and everyone turned their heads towards the front of the room. In all previous situations I have been in during my life, I have counted on my kindness, my well-thought-through beliefs and actions, and my genuine/transparent good intentions to earn the respect of others. Looking back, I've never needed anything besides these. I am told that the reason my students ignore many of the things I say, disrupt class, say mean things to me and to each other, etc. is because I don't punish them quickly enough when they do these things. It feels extremely unnatural for me to distribute consequences to people for not following my directions. I had never been in a position to have to do anything like that ever before. First of all, I've never needed to give direct orders to anyone, and even if I did, people would always be in a situation to just leave, instead, whereas my students are stuck with me for a whole year. Teach For America's model of teaching is based on the idea that, at its core, transformational teaching is actually based in some sort of leadership. This emerges not only in how teachers are taught to teach but also as a parameter that is considered as part of the application process. "Demonstrated past leadership" and the "ability to motivate and lead others" are apparently some things they look for in applicants. I have no idea how they assess this. However, my guess is that is that in 99% of what they look at (correctly) as leadership, those who are leading do not have a captive audience that must be punished if the words and actions of some "leader" do not immediately compel them to action. In most situations, leadership involves developing an inspiring and plausible vision for the future with a path to get there. If, for whatever reason, someone doesn't like something about this, they can usually just leave and do something else. Sure, the most effective leaders offer a worldview that is so compelling that many people can start to identify with it in a positive way very quickly, however there will always be some holdouts who have not (yet!) been won over. It is neither necessary nor productive to "punish" these holdouts, but this is what is required of teachers in order to maintain some amount of order in the classroom. Success at the first type of leadership does not necessarily imply success in the second type of "leadership." My lack of success at rallying my students around a shared vision for our classroom and for their future (or at least earning their respect) seems to be a problem with my leadership ability, however you wish to define it. In the past, my ability to earn the respect of others in formal or informal settings has always seemed to emerge from things I mentioned above: kindness, good thinking about things, and good intentions. That is insufficient here. Certainly, it is important for there to be immediate external consequences when someone makes a decision that is detrimental others such as their classmates, or that harms their future self (if they are young enough for society to consider this an acceptable reason to earn a consequence). It is just not clear to me why it is assumed that success at the first type of leadership (without a captive audience) makes it more likely that someone will be more successful at the second kind (with a captive audience). I don't think these are the same. I consider myself pretty good at the first kind, but the second kind is very unnatural for me. My experience (and my resume) would mark me as being a very successful leader (and not just in terms of "positional" leadership). However, I have absolutely no experience with the second kind, and I suppose it is therefore not too surprising that it is something that I am not that good at yet since I am starting entirely from scratch in this area.
Two of the young ladies I work with were in a tiff this week. They are BEST friends, but because of the situation, this friendship was threatened. The rest of the group challenged the two girls to be honest and to bring the tension to the surface. This made me feel nervous, as I had not intended this session to be very intense. It was one of the student’s birthdays, and all the party supplies were hidden behind the table just waiting to be revealed. But, it wasn't party time yet. First, they had some business to take care of, and I’m so glad they had the space to do it. Sisterhood is more than a hang out time for some friends. I learned this week that it is truly a space where these girls can learn (with supervision) how to love, how to trust, to handle anger, and resolve conflict. The situation escalated for some time, and I realized how often my “teacher” mindset wants to jump in, get an activity going, and move everybody along. Sometimes this just doesn’t cut it. Sometimes the girls need activities, but sometimes they need to sit in their silence and have the space to take it all in. I started to say, “I think we should…” and a student cut me off. She said, “What?! What do you think we should do? What does your heart and your soul and your pancreas feel like we should do?” She was alluding to the fact that she didn’t want to do it, and all of a sudden, I thought…”geez, why should she have to do it?” This problem was hers. It was not mine. I replied and said, “My pancreas feels like it got put in it’s place, but that’s good. That’s right where it needed to be.” After a few minutes of silence, she looked at her friend and said, “We don’t even deserve the title of best friends. I know I don’t even know what a best friend is. Maybe I should start working on me, and figuring out how to treat others. I’m sorry.” I was amazed at her honesty, and her ability to sort through those feelings. How much better the world would be if we learned to take responsibility for our actions and simply apologized every once in a while? As a species we often don’t know how to treat one another. And to think…I could have ruined all of that with some activity I wanted to lead. Why did I have a drive to control the situation? Was I looking to be in charge, was I disturbed by the silence, or was I hesitant about their ability to fix the situation? I’ve learned this week that I can’t change or fix the situation, but I can facilitate others in thinking about their situations, and sometimes that means knowing the right thing to say, and other times it means promoting thoughtfulness through an activity. But sometimes it just means providing a table to sit at, time to process, and a way of letting the kids know you trust them enough to handle whatever life throws at them.
I have stubbornly remained the only person on the planet to not use Twitter, but I think I'm finally caving in. I was at a lecture at the local university about policy and the elections, and the woman kept referencing all the useful policy things you can learn from watching Twitter. My friend convinced me it could be an easy way for a busy person to get back in touch with the rest of the world. So I signed up and promptly started following everything education-related that I could find. I'm not going to lie - Twitter is actually way more interesting than I had expected. Unfortunately, actually putting my own things onto Twitter is still hilariously hard for me. I just figured out how to write a tweet and I think I successfully shortened a URL. I don't know what all the little @ and # symbols do. I feel like someone's grandma just learning how to use the internet... and swear I'm really 24. Also, it's awkward because I'm currently practicing writing tweets to no one. Want to come follow me? I'm @mathinaz. (Is that where the @ sign goes? haha)
The Praxis II in Math Content (0061) is finally behind me. I received notice that I had passed with ROE! That actually startled me. I was relieved and happy and even somewhat proud, but the reaction I received from other TFAers about the Praxis Exam was along the lines of "Good job! We knew you would pass all along; the Praxis is just a formality. A way the ETS gets paid". Then I thought about it more... The fact that I had not even looked at a matrix, integration problem, or even a triangle since junior or senior year of high school and still passed within the top 15% of test-takers is not indicative (in my honest opinion) of my intelligence or math knowledge or even how hard I studied for the exam (I took a three practice tests from the Cliff Notes book, scored a 68% on the first, 68% on the second, and 80% on the third. I also bought and used the tests on http://www.praxis2math.com/). It is indicative, however, of the low standards that are in place for the majority of math teachers in the United States. The bar for knowledge of the subject should be moving higher as years go by, but that is not what I see happening. The STEM initiative is something that was brought to bring math and science to the forefront of the American educational reform movement in order to position our students to compete on a global scale. Currently, our students rank among the lower tiers of math and science proficiency by international standards. Should not a part of that underperformance be attributed to the fact that teachers can store as low as probably a 50% raw score on the Praxis II (0061) and still pass and become a math teacher? I will know more when my score report becomes available in a couple of days. But I cannot help but feel that although I scored with distinction, the raw percentage score on that exam that indicates my true proficiency with math will not meet conventional methods of understanding a subject deeply. I sincerely hope that I will be proven wrong though.
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